All week we’ve heard about how the Patriots will attempt to stop Matt Ryan and the Atlanta Falcons’ high-octane offense, and rightfully so. Ryan has had a season worthy of being crowned league MVP and the offense has even earned comparisons to the 1999-2001 St. Louis Rams and the “Greatest Show on Turf.”
I’m not here to write about Atlanta’s weapons and whether or not New England has the ability to match them (they do), but instead I’m here to write about how 39-year-old, three-time Super Bowl MVP Tom Brady can tear up Atlanta’s defense.
Now, we need to give the Falcons their due credit. They are a young defense full of talent and speed that has been consistently improving throughout the season. The Falcons defense struggled the most in weeks 11 through 15, ranking near the last in the league in DVOA with 16.0%; however, in weeks 16 through 20, the Falcons have earned a -11.6% DVOA (note that with defense, more negative is better).
With Dan Quinn taking over as Atlanta’s head coach a season ago, the defense has been built with young playmakers to match the Seattle Seahawks, where Quinn was the defensive coordinator from 2013 to 2014. Bill Belichick noted the similarities between Atlanta’s scheme and the “Legion of Boom’s.”
I think overall, the schemes are very similar, so the players that you can relate to those schemes -- both teams have them. (Kam) Chancellor and (Keanu) Neal, you can go right down the line. They're similar, they play a similar position in a similar defense. I'm not saying that their skills are the same, but that's what they do. There's probably a similarity to the skill sets. But yeah, it's a pretty -- Ricardo Allen plays in the deep part of the field like (Earl) Thomas did. That type of thing.
When you put on the tape, it’s not difficult to see that the Falcons are trying to emulate Seattle’s defense. The Falcons have loaded up on speed throughout the front seven and have backed it with a secondary that plays primarily Cover 3. The major differences in Atlanta and Seattle are related to personnel, and they are crucial.
Unlike the Seahawks, the Falcons don’t quite have the front seven to match the Seahawks. Atlanta’s defense is headlined by OLB Vic Beasley - who led the league with 15.5 sacks - and has Deion Jones at middle linebacker - who is in the conversation for defensive rookie of the year. Yet, they can’t live up to a Seahawks front seven led by Michael Bennett, Cliff Avril, and Bobby Wagner that rattled Tom Brady for most of the Super Bowl.
The other major difference between this Falcons team and the Seahawks is Earl Thomas. Simply put, with a man like Earl Thomas in the defensive backfield, there is little reason to worry. The Falcons predominantly play Allen in the middle third, but he, like most others, can’t match the range of Thomas. We all saw how Seattle’s defense plummeted after Thomas’ injury. In a Cover 3 defense, you can’t just rotate whomever into that deep, middle third. Allen has played well in just his second season starting, but he is no Thomas, and that will allow the Patriots to attack down the field.
New England will look to control the game through the tackles, as Atlanta ranks 29th in DVOA against the run, but if the Patriots are to win this Super Bowl, there is little doubt in my mind that Brady will be the MVP. He’s no stranger to this stage, and he is also no stranger to Quinn’s defensive philosophies.
The Pats have faced the Seattle style of defense three times in the last five years and have averaged 412.3 yards of offense in those games.— michael lombardi (@mlombardiNFL) January 26, 2017
As noted earlier, the Falcons have based their defense off of Cover 3. Yet, Atlanta has gotten increasingly more aggressive, moving to a lot of Cover 1. The single-high safety is still there, but the Falcons are trusting their young cornerbacks to play man-to-man coverage.
This has come back to bite the Falcons at times, who lost their best cover corner, Desmond Trufant, for the season in late November. According to Sporting Charts, the Falcons are the 13th worst in the league in giving up big passing plays - passes of 25 yards or more - and are last in the league in yards allowed after the catch.
Single-high coverages like Cover 1 and Cover 3 have their weaknesses on the sidelines. It takes a special type of player (see: Thomas and Devin McCourty) to play centerfielder and take away plays on the sidelines. Against Atlanta, Seattle had early success pushing the ball down the field against the Falcons’ Cover 1 shell.
On this play, the Seahawks lined up in 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end, three wide receivers) and a 1x3 formation. Noticing the man coverage and one safety high, Seattle ran a rub route to try and clear up Doug Baldwin on a wheel route. This did not fool Allen, or so he thought as he provided help over-the-top of Baldwin, yet Allen was in fact fooled. Allen failed to notice Paul Richardson on a deep post, and Richardson got just enough separation from Jalen Collins to make a huge 53 yard catch.
The Seahawks would come back to this a bit later in the game.
This clip shows the Seahawks in the same personnel and formation, just not with the tight end in a three point stance. This play also has nearly the same route concept on the three receiver side with the slot receiver, this time Doug Baldwin, running the deep post. However, instead of the rub and wheel, this play just has the other two receivers running straight go-routes.
Once Kearse gained inside leverage on the defensive back, he drew Allen’s attention, once again leaving Richardson in a one-on-one battle. Allen is not able to get there fast enough, allowing Richardson to haul in a 40 yard reception.
Now those two clips show us that you don’t have to shy away from attacking downfield against the Falcons’ Cover 1 defense. With man-beating routes away from the middle of the field, it’s possible to gain huge chunks of yards against this defense. But, how about against their Cover 3 defense, one that was made to give more of a cushion and not allow anything downfield?
That can be attacked too.
Looking at a Cover 3 shell, it’s easy to see that the way to attack it would be the middle of the field beyond the four underneath defenders. It becomes a numbers game: one defensive back in the middle of the field against possibly two receivers running down the seam.
In fact, this clip shows the Green Bay Packers taking advantage of the numbers. The Packers lined up in 11 personnel with a 2x2 formation. Green Bay had both inside receivers run go-routes, forcing Allen to choose between the two. Aaron Rodgers would hit tight end Jared Cook to put them inside the 10 yard line, but receiver Randall Cobb was also wide open.
These plays are just a few examples of how to attack the foundation of Atlanta’s secondary - the single-high safety coverages. Taking advantages of the numbers, the single coverages, and the matchups, as well as looking off defenders in zone coverages, and they will be golden.
I fully expect Brady to be able to take what he wants, as long as he is protected. Unlike Super Bowl XLIX, where Brady was often pressured and finished with 132 air yards and 196 yards after the catch (stat from @fearthe_beard11), the Patriots and Brady will be able to look downfield more.
Brady will do what he does best, deciphering zones and forcing Atlanta’s young linebackers to pass off New England’s quick receivers. He’ll have his chances to carve up the defense with methodical dives, and he’ll also have his chances to take big time shots downfield.
Don’t get me wrong. This Atlanta defense is rising at the right time and has the players in position to become a force in years to come. But, facing Tom Brady and the Patriots? In the Super Bowl? I’ll take Brady to have a game and try to surpass Ryan and Atlanta’s vaunted offense.